Limbic System: Your Child’s On/Off Switch for Emotional Grounding, Fight or Flight and Meltdowns
This article provides helpful information regarding how the limbic system can affect your child’s emotional grounding and learning ability. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Many systems in the child’s body deal with emotions and the sometimes complex psychological response that they initiate. Two brain systems, however, share the important task of regulating your child’s emotions. Both have distinct jobs that have differing focuses on internal and external demands, but they interconnect to reach the goal of managing and addressing your child’s emotional and survival needs. The two brain systems responsible for emotional grounding and emotional regulation in your child include:
Limbic System and Brain Stem
The brain stem and the limbic system structures that surround it focus internally on our survival, emotional and immediate bonding needs. The limbic system is categorized as one of the systems responsible for lower functions of the brain hierarchy, which means if a child has not yet developed these lower levels of learning, they cannot function properly at higher emotional levels. It can also cause emotional immaturity and may spark your child to freeze in certain situations and initiates fight or flight responses or fear.
The cerebral cortex regulates higher functions like our interactions and our emotional response to the external world. If your child’s lower levels of the brain are not working properly, the higher emotional functions of the cerebral cortex will not work. Your child’s ability to regulate their emotions and emotional responses to think both rationally and logically can be compromised.
How Emotions Affect Classroom Learning
As an adult, through multiple experiences and behavior modification, I can usually frame my emotions into a socially acceptable manner and still achieve the responses that are needed in any given situation. For a child, however, this may not always be an option, especially if they have an underdeveloped limbic system. The years of experiences and coping mechanisms are not fully developed and differ from child to child. Those children with learning challenges can experience many disruptions in a learning environment that trigger various emotions leading to high stress levels, meltdowns, tantrums and complete shut-downs. Faced with frustrations, worry, sadness, or shame, kids lose access to memory storage, reasoning and sometimes the capacity to make connections. The mere proposal of reading aloud in the classroom can send a child into fear mode. Scared kids perform poorly and do not learn new information well. We see many children whose intellectual capacity is drained due to emotional stress. This negative state seems to invariably exist for many students who have learning challenges and developmental delays. Many times their emotions are like an on/off switch, and when their emotional state is high on the surface, it has a direct impact on their learning ability.
As we learn in The Handbook of Emotion and Memory, it is logically understood that children eventually learn basic emotional labels for objects, people and situations. The child learns what is good, bad, what he or she likes or dislikes. It is no wonder that in a classroom, if there is more “bad” experiences and dislikes than positives then the learning potential may decrease. It’s important to remember if the lower levels of your child’s brain are not functioning properly, higher levels of the brain can’t function either. We have to make these functions automatic (sit still in a chair, regulate emotions, behave in class and respond to social cues) before your child can problem solve, read, write, answer questions, present in class and learn math equations. For some children, the energy that could have been exerted on listening to the teacher and rehearsing facts now has to be placed on regulating and calming down a negative emotional reaction because their emotional state or limbic system is underdeveloped.
We must also acknowledge that emotions simply exist. Research shows that the connection between a child’s emotions and academic learning has been neglected. There must be more exploration to understand the unique relationship. Children do not learn emotions the same way they learn the alphabet or new words. Teachers, parents and others cannot easily change emotional states, but should not ignore them either. Building an environment that supports emotional growth will stand forefront to building not only emotionally sound kids, but students that have a better opportunity for higher learning and critical thinking.
Regulator 1: Brain Stem and Limbic System
The brain stem and limbic system are extensively connected in continuous circuits to body systems, organs and sensory nerves, which are constantly responding to body regulation functions, cycles and defenses. The Reticular Activating System, located at the top of the brain stem, acts like an alarm clock for the brain and regulates focus and attention by integrating sensory information. The limbic system plays a key role as the emotional regulator and it also processes memory. These two states, emotions and memories, interconnect to form emotional memory, which produces the child’s responses to situations, experiences and learning.
Another important structure in relation to emotions is the amygdala. The amygdala is considered the gatekeeper of the emotional brain. It lies at the border between the lower limbic system structures and the cerebral cortex. Its principal task is to filter incoming sensory information and start the response process. In The Well Balanced Child, it describes the limbic system as having “no specific origin, and all structures are highly interactive. Limbic structures include the limbic lobe, hippocampal formation, amygdala, the hypothalamus and the anterior nucleus of the thalamus. Limbic connections are extensive as evidenced by the emotional component associated with all human behavior. Emotions must be coordinated with rational behavior (cerebral cortex) and with the level of alertness through the reticular formation.”
Regulator 2: Cerebral Cortex
The cerebral cortex occupies the largest portion of our brains. It consists of neural tissue that is deeply folded around the limbic system. The cortex is interconnected and organized into focused networks that play three of the following central roles:
- Receives, organizes and interprets sensory information
- Makes rational decisions
- Triggers emotional responses
Although studies are not conclusive on the roles of the right and left hemisphere, some patterns are apparent. It is understood that the right hemisphere seems to play a more prominent role in handling emotions, while the left hemisphere is more focused on logical thinking and what actually occurred. This is why children who are preschool or kindergarten-age tend to live in the right side of their brain (creative and emotional) until the left side of the brain (organized and logical) is fully developed. For example, the right hemisphere focuses on facial cues, gestures and tone of what the teacher said and the left focuses on the words that were actually said by the teacher. What is also found is how the right and left hemispheres respond differently to contrasting emotions. The left hemisphere processes the positive emotions that lead to socially approaching behavior (laughter, joy, excitement). Conversely, the right hemisphere seems to process the negative aspects of emotions (sadness, fear, disgust) to drive withdrawal responses. For this reason, crossing the midline activities for your child are essential to encourage the left and right brain to work together. If both sides of the brain work together, your child can build the neural pathways that engage your child’s emotions as well as their learning capability.
The front part of the cerebral cortex, known as the neocortex is divided into sensory and frontal lobes. The sensory lobes are more toward the back and store sensory memories. Frontal lobes focus on problem-solving and rational thinking. The anterior part of the frontal lobe is the most advanced and is in charge of planning and organizing future behavior and actions.
Top to Bottom Exercises for Emotional Grounding
To promote better development in your child’s limbic system and cerebral cortex for emotional grounding, try top to bottom exercises at home. These exercises cross over both the top and bottom parts of the body, which separates your both in half. It is the imaginary midline, called the transverse midline that can help your child’s brain stabilize their emotions, timing, rhythm and learning.
As you monitor your child’s development, if you notice your child has issues with their emotions, behavior, tantrums, attention, self-regulation and logical thinking, they will need additional top to bottom exercises to help their learning behavior in the classroom. Without these exercises, you may continue to notice delays in your child’s learning or side effects that can cause emotional instability, toe walking, W-sitting, bedwetting, poor balance and coordination, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, and trouble with motor planning. If your child struggles with any number of these issues, it could be an indication that the nervous system is underdeveloped.
To gain access to all top to bottom exercises we do at our center with our students, join our video membership club now to get started. We now have three new options available:
- Pick and choose which series works best for you for one price.
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Depending on what option works best for you, each series is typically only $1 per video. Each video series allows you to track your progress and reach certain goals you set with your child. To join, click here.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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